By Terrence McCoy
By Allie Conti
By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
Jose Ferrer, Mittelman's predecessor, was roundly criticized by the local press for hiring family members to direct and star in his productions. Mittelman calls that reaction to theatrical nepotism "stupid," suggesting that many great repertory theaters have been based on the special bond that develops among family and long-time friends. The perception that Mittelman has established an arrogant, spendthrift clique comprising himself, his wife, and two close associates is similarly small-minded, he contends. (Along with Jordan Bock, Judith Delgado and Lynne Peyser would not respond to telephone calls during the preparation of this story.)
The larger question of whether Mittelman's compensation package is excessive - currently roughly $150,000 per year paid to a single individual by a nonprofit, taxpayer-supported theater - will surely remain a subject of debate at the Playhouse. (Mittelman, on the advice of an attorney, declined to allow New Times to examine his contract.) Mittelman does point out that the sum is lower than that received by directors of other large cultural institutions in Miami. If he wants to be compared with those who earn more than he does, Mittelman is placing himself in illustrious company. In the fiscal year 1989-90 the Playhouse's tax form indicated he earned $101,124, plus a $14,000 bonus and his housing allowance. That year Michael Tilson Thomas earned $296,000 as artistic director of the New World Symphony - but he was also the orchestra's principal conductor. Famed dancer Edward Villella, the artistic director of the Miami City Ballet, received $200,000 in 1989-90. On the other hand, Judy Drucker, president of the Concert Association of Greater Miami (since renamed the Concert Association of Florida), received $100,000 that year. And Robert Heuer, general manager of the Greater Miami Opera, earned only $90,000, with no perquisites other than a company car. (The executive director of the Asolo Center for the Performing Arts in Sarasota - like the Playhouse a nonprofit state theater, with a comparable, five-million-dollar budget - is paid $75,000 in flat salary. He gets the use of a company car, but no bonuses or additional perks.)
Alvin Davis, the Miami attorney who represented the interests of the Playhouse in the original contract negotiations with Mittelman, defends the compensation package as reasonable. "He was coming down to take over a theater that was in pretty sorry condition," says Davis. "In its current position, I might negotiate different terms for the Playhouse, but you have to look at the circumstances. My view was that we were in dire circumstances when Arnold came on. He came down and worked eighteen hours a day, seven days a week to turn it around. Is it a fair compensation package? The answer is yes. If Arnold hadn't come in and done the job he did, the theater wouldn't be here. You tell me what compensation that deserves."
Fred Orenstein, a spokesman for the Professional Actors Association of Florida and a regional representative for Actors Equity, has publicly criticized the Coconut Grove Playhouse for years, writing to Florida Secretary of State Jim Smith, calling Gov. Lawton Chiles, speaking out at meetings of the Dade Cultural Affairs Council, demanding meetings with Playhouse board members.
He is among the many who believe the Playhouse has failed in what should be one of the chief goals of a regional theater: to provide local actors, directors, and playwrights a place to hone their talents. Though the statutes that govern state-supported cultural institutions do not require a quota of local talent, the spirit of the law certainly calls for it. "We emphasize that the state theaters should certainly give priority to Florida-based artists," explains Judy Pettijohn of the state Cultural Affairs Council. "That's not to say that they can't bring someone in from outside, but we certainly like them to give priority to local residents. It's not a requirement, but a strong encouragement."
"It galls us that a state-supported institution, a regional institution, does not in fact hire Florida actors," says Orenstein, citing recent Playhouse productions of The Roar of the Greasepaint, Matador, The Big Love (starring Tracey Ullman), Shirley Valentine (with Loretta Swit), Once Upon a Song, and a giddy revue of Chita Rivera ditties as examples of a theater totally disconnected from the local scene. "I and a lot of other local actors have pretty much given up on the Playhouse. The board sees the Playhouse as an ornament. Their interest is in bringing in big-name performers and packaged shows that are cast out of New York. Mittelman is clearly acting like any other commercial entrepreneur, but under the guise of a state-supported institution."
Deborah Simon, Playhouse production manager from 1988 until May 1991, says it is a common belief among the staff that Mittelman's purported commercial ambitions jibe nicely with the board's desires for the Playhouse to be nationally recognized. "They're looking for the project that will take them to New York so they can be Broadway producers," she notes. "That's the hidden agenda, and it's not really so hidden. I think most of the staff recognizes that, and they have no particular loyalty to the Playhouse." Simon also claims it was arrogance on the part of Playhouse executives that helped push its technical staff into the arms of union representatives in the past year.